BOOK REVIEW: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

written by David Steffen

American Gods is a contemporary fantasy/mythology novel by Neil Gaiman, published in 2001. I’ve heard the book highly recommended by many readers, and in 2017 Starz started airing a TV series adaptation, so I decided I needed to find out what it was all about.

The protagonist of the book, Shadow, is released from prison three days early when his wife Laura and best friend die in a car accident, and he learns had been having an affair with each other. He had gotten through his time in prison largely by looking forward to reuniting with her, and his job prospects after his release had depended on his best friend’s business.

Bereaved and bereft of all of his hopes for the future, with no good prospects for worth and nothing to look forward to, he is offered employment by a strange man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. Mr. Wednesday is a con man, and takes on Shadow as a bodyguard. Shadow is skeptical at first, but in the face of his options finding work as a recent ex-con, he takes the job.

Soon he is drawn into a strange war between ancient and new mythologies. The gods of the old world, a version of them transported here by the belief of immigrants who traveled here to the United States, are weak and dying from the waning beliefs of the people who brought them here. Meanwhile, new gods are rising up, not of the traditional sort, gods of technology and change. A cold war has been building for quite some time, and it’s about to come to a head.

I had trouble getting into this book. Much of the book is spent with Shadow spending time in random hotels or apartments by himself, waiting for Mr. Wednesday to come back again. And while much of the purpose of the seemingly unimportant events of these “waiting around” times becomes clear later, it didn’t make it quicker or more interesting to read at the time. In addition, it’s almost two hundred pages into the book before the mythology plot comes to the forefront–until that point it’s just Shadow hanging about with odd people with quesitonable motivations. The mythology plot is what drew me to the book, so it was frustrating to wait so long to really get into it.

I found Shadow hard to relate to in particular, which made it especially difficult to keep going with the book. I empathized with the depths of his despair when he was released early because of tragedy but many of the decisions he makes in the book make no sense whatsoever to me. Taking the job with Mr. Wednesday, I get in itself, because he was very short on options at the time for being able to make a living in his post-conviction life. But throughout much of the rest of it, he would make a decision that would just leave me scratching my head, and this is for major decisions that the entire plot is built on, so I couldn’t just ignore the oddity, the entire book depended on them.

There were some elements near the very end that helped justify some of the long periods of not much happening, which helped some in retrospect.

This book was not for me. I’d like to talk with some of the people who recommended it so highly and see what it was they got out of the book, because I am curious to hear another perspective. I might consider trying out the TV show at some point because I feel like the premise is very promising, maybe I’ll enjoy a different adaptation of the story.

Published by

David Steffen

David Steffen is an editor, publisher, and writer. If you like what he does you can visit the Support page or buy him a coffee! He is probably best known for being co-founder and administrator of The Submission Grinder, a donation-supported tool to help writers track their submissions and find publishers for their work . David is also the editor-in-chief here at Diabolical Plots. He is also the editor and publisher of The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List series. David also (sometimes) writes fiction, and you can follow on BlueSky for updates on cross-stitch projects and occasionally other things.

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